Like Ian Fleming and P.G. Wodehouse, Woody Allen returns compulsively to the same creative ground. In Allen's case, it's ground trod by anxious, well-to-do white people, who swap partners and drop cultural references in an empty, godless universe. The extent of the similarities from one film to the next is remarkable. It's not just that he recasts actors or that he revisits the themes of domestic boredom and cosmic insignificance. He reuses the same font, EF Windsor Light Condensed, for his titles and credits. He recycles character types: the neurotic Jewish New Yorker (the filmmaker's spit and image), the adulterous intellectual, the hypochondriac intellectual. He recycles plot lines. He even recycles punch lines. In Celebrity (1998), a model says she's "polymorphously perverse … meaning every part of my body gives me sexual pleasure." That should sound familiar: In Annie Hall (1977), Alvy tells Annie that she's "polymorphously perverse … you get pleasure in every part of your body when I touch it."
Given the redundancy of Allen's work, it might seem like a waste of time to dig into it deeply and get beyond his top-tier comedies and dramas. Yet attending "the new Woody Allen" is, for me, an annual rite. The worrisomely prolific auteur has written and directed 40 feature-length films, and has a 41st scheduled to premiere at Cannes in May. I have seen them all, as well as the early movies that he wrote but did not direct (What's New Pussycat?, Play It Again, Sam), the shorts Oedipus Wrecks and Sounds from a Town I Love, and the TV movie Don't Drink the Water. I've even watched Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story, a 25-minute mockumentary that satirizes the Nixon administration. Produced as a television special for PBS, it was pulled before airing, reportedly because the programmers feared antagonizing government officials. (I tracked it down at the Paley Center for Media.) Lots of cinephiles can quote the best lines from Love and Death. Sonja: "Sex without love is an empty experience." Boris: "Yes, but as empty experiences go, it's one of the best!" I can cite jokes from Take the Money and Run: "I think crime pays. The hours are good, you meet a lot of interesting people, you travel a lot." Or from Stardust Memories: "To you I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the loyal opposition."
One might detect in my behavior a trace of the repetition compulsion that animates Allen. In my defense, and in his, consider this: Though he returns to the same themes, I've found significant differences in how he treats those themes—variations not attributable to basic shifts in genre (comedy versus drama) or to fluctuations in quality. (Sadly, I must admit he is far from consistent in this regard. Celebrity and Hollywood Ending belong in a bonfire.) There's also diversity in the way Allen's characters grapple with the ideas that preoccupy him, particularly in the way they handle the likelihood that we live in a godless universe. Allen answers the question of what we should make of nothingness differently in different movies. Sometimes nothing means everything, sometimes nothing much.
When an Allen character is in a particularly morose state of mind, he may feel moved to announce that life is meaningless. I call these "void moments," because the declarations often contain the word void. Despite the bleak moniker, the void moment doesn't always have the same function. Play It Again, Sam (1972), for instance, has a particularly lighthearted one.
In this little-seen comedy, the recently divorced Allan Felix (Woody Allen) tries to get the hang of dating. Trouble is, he's romantically self-destructive: Felix (I'll use his surname to avoid confusion) says he's attracted to "emotionally disturbed women," and that's not an exaggeration. The depth of his perverse inclination becomes clear when he approaches a woman looking at a Jackson Pollock drip-painting, and asks what it means to her. She answers: "It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous, lonely, emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation forming a useless bleak straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos." She's just the kind of woman Felix has been looking for, and he asks her what's she's doing Saturday night. "Committing suicide," she responds. Unfazed, he counters: "What about Friday night?"
This nameless woman seems to articulate Allen's world view exactly. (After the 2009 release of Whatever Works, he told NPR that filmmaking "distracts me from the uncertainty of life, the inevitability of aging and death and death of loved ones; mass killings and starvation, from holocausts—not just man-made carnage, but the existential position you're in." Inspiring!) But in Play It Again, Sam, we're clearly meant to find her approach ridiculous. The depressive despairs: Because there is "nothing," she longs to return to that state. Felix, by contrast, moves forward blithely: If existence is lonely and hideous, why not go out on Saturday? Or Friday, whatever, he's not busy. By letting Felix win the volley, Allen also endorses his protagonist's resigned epicurean sensibility.
The takeaway from Stardust Memories (1980), the fourth title in the more serious, less slapstick-driven period that began with Annie Hall, is more ambiguous. If it's always tempting to conflate Allen with the characters he portrays, it's almost impossible not to see him in filmmaker Sandy Bates, who travels to a festival at the Stardust Hotel as the guest of honor. Like Allen himself, Sandy has abandoned comedy for drama, much to the chagrin of his producers. A studio exec asks, "What does he have to suffer about? Doesn't the man know he has the greatest gift that anybody could ever have? The gift of laughter?" His fans have the same questions, telling Sandy insistently that they like his "earlier, funny movies." These appeals don't move Sandy; he won't go back to his old style because "I don't feel funny. I look around the world, and all I see is human suffering."